As Harford County health and elected officials worked to alert the public to the dangers of Lyme disease during a County Council meeting Tuesday – noting many people close to them who have the chronic, tick-borne ailment – the council president revealed just how personal his stake is in the fight against the disease.
Councilman Billy Boniface said he has been battling Lyme disease for the past few months.
Boniface, Health Officer Susan Kelly and David Reiher, head of the Health Department's Rabies and Vector Control Program, proclaimed May as Lyme Disease Month in Harford County to promote awareness of a disease which officials said is often misdiagnosed and can lead to lifelong suffering for those who contract it.
"I've had to completely change my lifestyle," Boniface said.
The council president – who was already grieving the loss of his son last June – said the disease affected his mind and his back. He went to several doctors but did not receive a correct diagnosis until he found a physician who also suffered from Lyme disease.
"The good Lord blessed me and I got led to a Lyme awareness doctor," Boniface said.
Boniface said he has been taking antibiotics regularly, but "I'm going to be dealing with this the rest of my life."
Kelly and Reiher spoke about Lyme disease during a roughly 35-minute presentation, which preceded the proclamation.
"We all do know the devastating effects," Kelly said. "Many people in our own family and community have this disease."
Reiher said cases of Lyme disease – which was first identified in Lyme, Conn., during the late 1970s – have doubled in Harford County between 2002 and 2011, peaking with 162 reported cases in 2007.
The Health Department has worked – with assistance from the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, plus the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – since 2008 to promote awareness and prevention of the disease locally.
Lyme disease can be found throughout the United States, but the highest incidence of cases is along the Eastern seaboard from Maryland to New England, and parts of the Midwest, such as Minnesota.
The disease is spread primarily by the black-legged or deer tick, which are carriers of the Lyme disease bacteria, known as Borrelia burgdorferi. The ticks attach themselves to small mammals such as mice in search of a "blood meal," Reiher said.
Ticks in the nymph and adult stages carry the bacteria; humans are an attractive target because of their high body temperatures and the amount of carbon dioxide they exude.
"The tick needs a blood meal and it gets that from a host," Reiher explained. "That host can be you."
Reiher suggested a number of ways to prevent attracting ticks, especially using insect repellent that contains the chemicals DEET or Permethrin.
He noted the U.S. military provides clothing treated with Permethrin.
"I think we both agree prevention is probably the biggest, most important thing in dealing with Lyme disease that we should do," Boniface said.
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